Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city

Peddling thoughts about The Netherlands

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Borneo Sporenburg, Eastern Docklands, Amsterdam.

I was a child of primary school age when I first visited Amsterdam in the early 1980s.  It was a family day trip from our campsite near Zeebrugge in Belgium, and despite it being formidably unique amongst cities, I genuinely have no recollection of the place from back then.  I went again in the early 2000s and did many of the tourist things – the Anne Frank house, canal cruises, the Heineken Experience and the red light district, (watching, not trading).  By then, the character of this place had been inevitably learnt simply because of its place in popular culture, built out of the sea on canals and dominated by folk on foot and on bike.  I again can’t recall the first impression I had stepping into this city; life these days is too often seen through second hand sources and the experience of being somewhere for the first time can sometimes seem anticlimactic or diminished.

In 2008, I was lucky enough to lead a trip to Amsterdam for 40 or so built environment professionals (planners, architects, urban designers, highway engineers…) on behalf of the now defunct, and much missed, Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment in 2008.  It was part of one of the programmes CABE ran.  I had much help from Gerard Maccreanor of respected architects Maccreanor Lavington, who have offices both in The Netherlands and in the UK and who have been instrumental in bringing European thinking to British urban planning.  The trip also benefitted from the contribution of Ton Schaap, who was then the Head of Planning for the City of Amsterdam.  This was genuinely exciting.  I remember that.

By then Amsterdam, and The Netherlands in general, had a solid reputation for forward thinking domestic architecture, equitable and efficient transport systems, innovative business environments, contemporary and attractive design and inclusive public realm.  Built environment professionals from the UK have looked longingly at this and sought to bring some of that thinking home in an effort to improve planning and architecture here.

It was the perfect place for CABE to visit.  We had an overview of Amsterdam’s development and the public sector’s approach to planning (they own most of the land, which helps enormously).  We visited new residential developments at GWL-terrain in the west of the city and at the eastern docklands where Borneo Sporenburg and the work of West 8 was a particular highlight; we spent time in Almere, a new settlement to the east of Amsterdam and we also visited Utrecht to see urban extensions there, particularly the approach to integrating cycling and walking into the fabric of an older city.

England is seeing some Dutch influence more and more; already in the architecture – certainly in denser, urban locations and particularly in London – it’s almost endemic.  We now have ‘mini-Holland’ in a handful of London boroughs – including Enfield, my own – which aim to elevate cycling as a means of transport whilst easing us away from cars and encouraging local shopping and better public realm.

As a work visit, Amsterdam 2008 was enjoyed by those who attended and it left something of an impression on me.  Finding myself back on holiday in The Netherlands with my family in 2016, I was nevertheless ill-prepared for how impressed I’d be with the way in which the Dutch organise their lives and their cities and I began reflecting on the recent – ever more ridiculous – battles had around Enfield’s mini-Holland scheme…

img_5869Debate about cycling and its impact on public spaces and high streets has been raging in Enfield since the council landed £30m to implement a ‘mini-holland‘ highway scheme a couple of years ago. Whilst the arguments started as level headed and informative, not least because of the Council’s inclusive approach to engagement, it soon became polarised between a small group of vocal, but stubborn, local businesses and petrol heads who seem to think that the only way to access a shop is by parking right outside it and driving your purchases home and a cycle lobby who, whilst at least based in reality, was often an impenetrable mass of statistics and percentages. OK, perhaps I exaggerate for comic effect, but the caricatures are familiar.  I had become disenchanted and divorced from the debate, despite the hearty efforts of some good friends who have absolutely embraced a life based on self propelled transport without cause to wearing tight fitting shorts and wrap around shades (I salute you guys…you know who you are). I can only feel for those agnostics who wanted to know more but were bombarded by shouty extremists with immovable opinions.

My summer holiday in Holland was chosen not because a desire to see the mother of cycling societies at close quarters but because their CentreParcs was cheaper than our CentreParcs and the trip across the Channel offered the potential to see friends and former colleagues in Amsterdam.  I did not expect my head to be turned by the majesty of their societal organisation and the central and essential place that cycling plays in that, but the spectacular success of it meant that my head inevitably was.

Before I endeavour to describe this, let me make one thing clear. Central Amsterdam – those tourist bits you might have seen – is not the best example of cycling and cycling infrastructure and its positive impact on society. Amsterdam is certainly dominated by bikes – the many enormous and bewilderingly crammed multi-storey parking areas outside central station will tell you that. But the centre is a muddled mass of trams, buses, backpackers, tourists, sightseers, residents, employees, smells, sights. The cycling infrastructure is muddled and seemingly incomprehensible. The real magic happens in the small cities and the suburbs – Leiden, Aalkmaar, Haarlem, Schiedam, Zaanstad. Places akin to suburban London; places akin, my friends, to Enfield.

Our first experiences were in Schiedam, a small city on the western side of Rotterdam, famous for having the world’s tallest traditional windmills, six beauties hugging the canal around the northern edge of the centre.  Our hotel was in Nieuw Schiedam away from the historic core. Late arriving at our hotel, we drove the couple of miles to the centre. The trip was eventful.

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Priority for bikes at roundabouts, Haarlem

The roads were clear and well signed. Every road into the centre was lined with a segregated cycle lane, which were often busier than the roads. We had to negotiate a left turn off the main road, and were immediately struck by the road markings, which gave cyclists priority at the roundabout. As a driver, I became much more cautious. The road after the roundabout – still a key road around the city centre – was a narrow sinuous carriageway for the car, almost residential in nature – bounded by wide green segregated cycle lanes and footpaths. Again cyclists had priority across the road, something I would never forget after almost coming to blows with a cyclist crossing in front of me who made no effort to slow down. It was immediately obvious that all across The Netherlands, cycles are king and the people are his loyal servants.

img_5872

At pinch points, the space for cars narrows, the space for bikes stays the same (Haarlem)

British people think nothing of going to CentreParcs and willingly giving up their cars, thriving on the excitement of getting between places without risks from other traffic, enjoying dedicated and attractive cycle routes and reaping the physical and spiritual health benefits of powering oneself around.  It becomes obvious, second nature. We were no different at our resort in Zandvoort on the west coast, though Dutch parks are smaller, and you’re not so much cycling round the park as cycling round the area, which is easy because most of Holland is not unlike an enormous CentreParcs, in as much as cycling is obvious and becomes second nature.

My wife, our 7 year old daughter, 4 year old son and I took two cycle jaunts, one 4km north towards Overveen and one 9km east to Haarlem. The first was exclusively along dedicated cycle paths alongside each side of the road, at times also alongside segregated bus lanes. The condition of the paths is excellent, they have dedicated sign posts and of course they are busier than the road.

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Floating bus stops…the horror.  But people get used to them in about 3 minutes (Zandvoort)

The trip to Haarlem took in dedicated cycle lanes alongside the roads through coastal Zandvoort, a section of cycle lane through the national park which brought us out on more dedicated cycle paths alongside the roads from the edge of Haarlem to the city’s glorious centre. Here we experienced our first roundabout as cyclists with absolute priority over any other form of transport, and the Dutch propensity to narrow the carriageway for cars down to a single width rather than compromise the width of the cycle space on both sides of the road where the urban form is restricted. Cars just have to sit and wait, such is the Dutch way.

We’d decided to visit Haarlem on our bikes because we’d visited a day or two earlier by train and been impressed by the historic market square and cathedral, the beautiful streets and canals, the busy bars and cafes  – many facing the market square – and the prosperous looking shops, boutiques and market that filled every central traffic free street. The station, 500m or so north of the market square, spills out onto a pedestrianised square and tidy bus interchange, leading the eye to the main street to the centre. This street is a simple road of two car width, but half of that width is dedicated to bikes and the other half barely sees a vehicle. As well as the large areas of parked bikes all along this road and the bikes zipping up and down the road in and out of town, something else strikes the British senses about Haarlem; it is peaceful and the air is clean and fresh.  There are no noxious fumes, there is no standing traffic and what one hears is the chatter of people.

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The front of Haarlem station.  The main road to the centre is in the foreground, dominated by cyclists and pedestrians

I think the ease of movement and the quality of the environment created by limiting car use encourages the town centres to be successful. I don’t think that environmental quality is necessarily connected to architectural quality either. In picking up fresh veg and fruit for our self catering week in Zandvoort, we dropped into a neighbourhood centre in suburban Leiden which we knew hosted two supermarkets; Lidl and Holland’s own Alfred Heijn. The centre was an unspectacular 1970s precinct not unfamiliar to those brought up in post war suburban Britain in the 1960s and 70s – low rise, flat roofed shops facing an internal pedestrianised street. In Britain, it would have been a setting for post-apocalyptic zombie flick, a struggling and stale relic of world in which the out of town retail and leisure park now rules over the local precinct. But this is Holland, where people shop local, use local facilities, get there – on the whole – on their bikes and as a result have a buzzing local shopping centre fulfilling much of their daily need. Whilst it also had ample, clean, bright, accessible and free underground parking for cars, this was two thirds empty. There was no noticeable vacancy amongst the 30 or so shops and during my whole stay I don’t remember seeing a charity shop or a bookie.

These are not isolated incidents. Aalkmaar in northern Holland is one of the most beautiful, surprising and well preserved cities I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit, and the structural approach to movement and the organisation of traffic and urban form is the same, allowing the experience of the city to be maximised by not flooding it with traffic, fumes, noise and conflict between incompatible forms of transport.  We stayed in Hoofddorp for four nights, a modern town just beyond Schipol airport and experienced the same.

It helps that the Dutch are adaptable and practical people, unconcerned by demonstrating status through the size and horsepower of their metal box on wheels (4x4s are exceptionally rare on streets) or, indeed, their bikes. They seem to value community and local roots (one Dutch friend said that a car journey of 45 minutes is thought of as ‘a long way’). How people ever find their bikes is mind-boggling given their similarity – functional, black, often without front brakes and gears, all with a built in key locks on the back wheel. Bikes are also customised in many ways – panniers, crates and boxes are commonplace to carry goods, trailers and carriers are common for kids and two child seats on the front and back of a bike are also regularly seen. No-one is excluded from the cycling way of life and it is the preserve of the everyday person. We saw one bike with a wheelchair on the front and, of course, mobility scooter users benefit by having well maintained, segregated and direct routes that they can also use to get about, making society as a whole more equal and inclusive. No one needs brightly coloured Lycra and an unfaltering awareness of dangers on the road to feel utterly at home pedalling around Holland.

This apparent panacea isn’t without its issues; the main ones seem to be the unfamiliarity that visitors have with their road user hierarchy, particularly in the busier parts of busy cities and the danger posed by allowing motorised scooters to share bike lanes. But, on the whole, the Dutch system is certainly one to be admired and aspired to.

It has not been an overnight job; it’s been 40 or 50 years of societal and cultural change that started with a rise against the growth of car use and their role in deaths on streets. It’s where we are now. But it is now second nature to them, and their lifestyle seems to expect it to continue. Allowing bikes to dominate has not destroyed the vibrancy of their places – it has enhanced them massively, encouraging a better and cleaner environment, providing a crisp and attractive cityscape for business and entrepreneurs and developing a reputation for innovation that encourages people to want to live, work, visit and stay in Holland.

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The main road into Haarlem; bikes and cars have the same direct route.  Parking is tidy.

One final important point; whilst cycling is at the top of the transport food chain, transport routes largely co-exist. Bike routes are not poor cousins shifted onto back routes or separated networks. It’s easy to see how this would not work, because it undermines the importance of the mode and creates indirect and, if not properly signed, confusing and contrived routes. We tried extensive separated cycle networks in our post war new towns; go and visit Stevenage to see how that worked out and how our urban planning is in love with and encourages the car over all else – and be sickened at the missed opportunity.

So, tired of the stats, the percentages and the uninformed opinions, I’ve seen how cycling practically works in Holland’s major cities, it’s large towns and its suburbs and I’m totally convinced that we have it wrong here; utterly wrong. Mini-Holland is a huge step in the right direction. Enfield must hold its nerve and if we do the rewards for our towns in the next generation are enormous.

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Peddling thoughts about The Netherlands (part three)

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Hoofddorp station cycle parking

We’d decided to visit Haarlem on our bikes because we’d visited a day or two earlier by train and been impressed by the historic market square and cathedral, the beautiful streets and canals, the busy bars and cafes  – many facing the market square – and the prosperous looking shops, boutiques and market that filled every central traffic free street. The station, 500m or so north of the market square, spills out onto a pedestrianised square and tidy bus interchange, leading the eye to the main street to the centre. This street is a simple road of two car width, but half of that width is dedicated to bikes and the other half barely sees a vehicle. As well as the large areas of parked bikes all along this road and the bikes zipping up and down the road in and out of town, something else strikes the British senses about Haarlem; it is peaceful and the air is clean and fresh.  There are no noxious fumes, there is no standing traffic and what one hears is the chatter of people.

img_5834

The front of Haarlem station.  The main road to the centre is in the foreground, dominated by cyclists and pedestrians

I think the ease of movement and the quality of the environment created by limiting car use encourages the town centres to be successful. I don’t think that environmental quality is necessarily connected to architectural quality either. In picking up fresh veg and fruit for our self catering week in Zandvoort, we dropped into a neighbourhood centre in suburban Leiden which we knew hosted two supermarkets; Lidl and Holland’s own Alfred Heijn. The centre was an unspectacular 1970s precinct not unfamiliar to those brought up in post war suburban Britain in the 1960s and 70s – low rise, flat roofed shops facing an internal pedestrianised street. In Britain, it would have been a setting for post-apocalyptic zombie flick, a struggling and stale relic of world in which the out of town retail and leisure park now rules over the local precinct. But this is Holland, where people shop local, use local facilities, get there – on the whole – on their bikes and as a result have a buzzing local shopping centre fulfilling much of their daily need. Whilst it also had ample, clean, bright, accessible and free underground parking for cars, this was two thirds empty. There was no noticeable vacancy amongst the 30 or so shops and during my whole stay I don’t remember seeing a charity shop or a bookie.

 

These are not isolated incidents. Aalkmaar in northern Holland is one of the most beautiful, surprising and well preserved cities I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit, and the structural approach to movement and the organisation of traffic and urban form is the same, allowing the experience of the city to be maximised by not flooding it with traffic, fumes, noise and conflict between incompatible forms of transport.  We stayed in Hoofddorp for four nights, a modern town just beyond Schipol airport and experienced the same.

Aalkmaar in northern Holland is one of the most beautiful, surprising and well preserved cities I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit

 

It helps that the Dutch are adaptable and practical people, unconcerned by demonstrating status through the size and horsepower of their metal box on wheels (4x4s are exceptionally rare on streets) or, indeed, their bikes. They seem to value community and local roots (one Dutch friend said that a car journey of 45 minutes is thought of as ‘a long way’). How people ever find their bikes is mind-boggling given their similarity – functional, black, often without front brakes and gears, all with a built in key locks on the back wheel. Bikes are also customised in many ways – panniers, crates and boxes are commonplace to carry goods, trailers and carriers are common for kids and two child seats on the front and back of a bike are also regularly seen. No-one is excluded from the cycling way of life and it is the preserve of the everyday person. We saw one bike with a wheelchair on the front and, of course, mobility scooter users benefit by having well maintained, segregated and direct routes that they can also use to get about, making society as a whole more equal and inclusive. No one needs brightly coloured Lycra and an unfaltering awareness of dangers on the road to feel utterly at home pedalling around Holland.

This apparent panacea isn’t without its issues; the main ones seem to be the unfamiliarity that visitors have with their road user hierarchy, particularly in the busier parts of busy cities and the danger posed by allowing motorised scooters to share bike lanes. But, on the whole, the Dutch system is certainly one to be admired and aspired to.

It has not been an overnight job; it’s been 40 or 50 years of societal and cultural change that started with a rise against the growth of car use and their role in deaths on streets. It’s where we are now. But it is now second nature to them, and their lifestyle seems to expect it to continue. Allowing bikes to dominate has not destroyed the vibrancy of their places – it has enhanced them massively, encouraging a better and cleaner environment, providing a crisp and attractive cityscape for business and entrepreneurs and developing a reputation for innovation that encourages people to want to live, work, visit and stay in Holland.

img_5877

The main road into Haarlem; bikes and cars have the same direct route.  Parking is tidy.

 

 

One final important point; whilst cycling is at the top of the transport food chain, transport routes largely co-exist. Bike routes are not poor cousins shifted onto back routes or separated networks. It’s easy to see how this would not work, because it undermines the importance of the mode and creates indirect and, if not properly signed, confusing and contrived routes. We tried extensive separated cycle networks in our post war new towns; go and visit Stevenage to see how that worked out and how our urban planning is in love with and encourages the car over all else – and be sickened at the missed opportunity.

 

So, tired of the stats, the percentages and the uninformed opinions, I’ve seen how cycling practically works in Holland’s major cities, it’s large towns and its suburbs and I’m totally convinced that we have it wrong here; utterly wrong. Mini-Holland is a huge step in the right direction. Enfield must hold its nerve and if we do the rewards for our towns in the next generation are enormous.

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Peddling thoughts about The Netherlands (part two)

img_5869Debate about cycling and its impact on public spaces and high streets has been raging in Enfield since the council landed £30m to implement a ‘mini-holland‘ highway scheme a couple of years ago. Whilst the arguments started as level headed and informative, not least because of the Council’s inclusive approach to engagement, it soon became polarised between a small group of vocal, but stubborn, local businesses and petrol heads who seem to think that the only way to access a shop is by parking right outside it and driving your purchases home and a cycle lobby who, whilst at least based in reality, was often an impenetrable mass of statistics and percentages. OK, perhaps I exaggerate for comic effect, but the caricatures are familiar.  I had become disenchanted and divorced from the debate, despite the hearty efforts of some good friends who have absolutely embraced a life based on self propelled transport without cause to wearing tight fitting shorts and wrap around shades (I salute you guys…you know who you are). I can only feel for those agnostics who wanted to know more but were bombarded by shouty extremists with immovable opinions.

My summer holiday in Holland was chosen not because a desire to see the mother of cycling societies at close quarters but because their CentreParcs was cheaper than our CentreParcs and the trip across the Channel offered the potential to see friends and former colleagues in Amsterdam.  I did not expect my head to be turned by the majesty of their societal organisation and the central and essential place that cycling plays in that, but the spectacular success of it meant that my head inevitably was.

Before I endeavour to describe this, let me make one thing clear. Central Amsterdam – those tourist bits you might have seen – is not the best example of cycling and cycling infrastructure and its positive impact on society. Amsterdam is certainly dominated by bikes – the many enormous and bewilderingly crammed multi-storey parking areas outside central station will tell you that. But the centre is a muddled mass of trams, buses, backpackers, tourists, sightseers, residents, employees, smells, sights. The cycling infrastructure is muddled and seemingly incomprehensible. The real magic happens in the small cities and the suburbs – Leiden, Aalkmaar, Haarlem, Schiedam, Zaanstad. Places akin to suburban London; places akin, my friends, to Enfield.

Our first experiences were in Schiedam, a small city on the western side of Rotterdam, famous for having the world’s tallest traditional windmills, six beauties hugging the canal around the northern edge of the centre.  Our hotel was in Nieuw Schiedam away from the historic core. Late arriving at our hotel, we drove the couple of miles to the centre. The trip was eventful.

img_5873

Priority for bikes at roundabouts, Haarlem

The roads were clear and well signed. Every road into the centre was lined with a segregated cycle lane, which were often busier than the roads. We had to negotiate a left turn off the main road, and were immediately struck by the road markings, which gave cyclists priority at the roundabout. As a driver, I became much more cautious. The road after the roundabout – still a key road around the city centre – was a narrow sinuous carriageway for the car, almost residential in nature – bounded by wide green segregated cycle lanes and footpaths. Again cyclists had priority across the road, something I would never forget after almost coming to blows with a cyclist crossing in front of me who made no effort to slow down. It was immediately obvious that all across The Netherlands, cycles are king and the people are his loyal servants.

img_5872

At pinch points, the space for cars narrows, the space for bikes stays the same (Haarlem)

British people think nothing of going to CentreParcs and willingly giving up their cars, thriving on the excitement of getting between places without risks from other traffic, enjoying dedicated and attractive cycle routes and reaping the physical and spiritual health benefits of powering oneself around.  It becomes obvious, second nature. We were no different at our resort in Zandvoort on the west coast, though Dutch parks are smaller, and you’re not so much cycling round the park as cycling round the area, which is easy because most of Holland is not unlike an enormous CentreParcs, in as much as cycling is obvious and becomes second nature.

My wife, our 7 year old daughter, 4 year old son and I took two cycle jaunts, one 4km north towards Overveen and one 9km east to Haarlem. The first was exclusively along dedicated cycle paths alongside each side of the road, at times also alongside segregated bus lanes. The condition of the paths is excellent, they have dedicated sign posts and of course they are busier than the road.

img_5862

Floating bus stops…the horror.  But people get used to them in about 3 minutes (Zandvoort)

The trip to Haarlem took in dedicated cycle lanes alongside the roads through coastal Zandvoort, a section of cycle lane through the national park which brought us out on more dedicated cycle paths alongside the roads from the edge of Haarlem to the city’s glorious centre. Here we experienced our first roundabout as cyclists with absolute priority over any other form of transport, and the Dutch propensity to narrow the carriageway for cars down to a single width rather than compromise the width of the cycle space on both sides of the road where the urban form is restricted. Cars just have to sit and wait, such is the Dutch way.

…to be continued

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Peddling thoughts about The Netherlands (part one)

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Borneo Sporenburg, Eastern Docklands, Amsterdam.

I was a child of primary school age when I first visited Amsterdam in the early 1980s.  It was a family day trip from our campsite near Zeebrugge in Belgium, and despite it being formidably unique amongst cities, I genuinely have no recollection of the place from back then.  I went again in the early 2000s and did many of the tourist things – the Anne Frank house, canal cruises, the Heineken Experience and the red light district, (watching, not trading).  By then, the character of this place had been inevitably learnt simply because of its place in popular culture, built out of the sea on canals and dominated by folk on foot and on bike.  I again can’t recall the first impression I had stepping into this city; life these days is too often seen through second hand sources and the experience of being somewhere for the first time can sometimes seem anticlimactic or diminished.

In 2008, I was lucky enough to lead a trip to Amsterdam for 40 or so built environment professionals (planners, architects, urban designers, highway engineers…) on behalf of the now defunct, and much missed, Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment in 2008.  It was part of one of the programmes CABE ran.  I had much help from Gerard Maccreanor of respected architects Maccreanor Lavington, who have offices both in The Netherlands and in the UK and who have been instrumental in bringing European thinking to British urban planning.  The trip also benefitted from the contribution of Ton Schaap, who was then the Head of Planning for the City of Amsterdam.  This was genuinely exciting.  I remember that.

By then Amsterdam, and The Netherlands in general, had a solid reputation for forward thinking domestic architecture, equitable and efficient transport systems, innovative business environments, contemporary and attractive design and inclusive public realm.  Built environment professionals from the UK have looked longingly at this and sought to bring some of that thinking home in an effort to improve planning and architecture here.

It was the perfect place for CABE to visit.  We had an overview of Amsterdam’s development and the public sector’s approach to planning (they own most of the land, which helps enormously).  We visited new residential developments at GWL-terrain in the west of the city and at the eastern docklands where Borneo Sporenburg and the work of West 8 was a particular highlight; we spent time in Almere, a new settlement to the east of Amsterdam and we also visited Utrecht to see urban extensions there, particularly the approach to integrating cycling and walking into the fabric of an older city.

England is seeing some Dutch influence more and more; already in the architecture – certainly in denser, urban locations and particularly in London – it’s almost endemic.  We now have ‘mini-Holland’ in a handful of London boroughs – including Enfield, my own – which aim to elevate cycling as a means of transport whilst easing us away from cars and encouraging local shopping and better public realm.

As a work visit, Amsterdam 2008 was enjoyed by those who attended and it left something of an impression on me.  Finding myself back on holiday in The Netherlands with my family in 2016, I was nevertheless ill-prepared for how impressed I’d be with the way in which the Dutch organise their lives and their cities and I began reflecting on the recent – ever more ridiculous – battles had around Enfield’s mini-Holland scheme…

…to be continued

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Christmas and Glasgow

The tragedy in Glasgow this week has reminded me of the one night I spent in Glasgow on June 3, 1990.

Glasgow was European City of Culture and, in order to celebrate the city’s musical and artistic diversity, a major one-day festival – The Big Day – was planned for June 3 over several sites.  The event appealed to your young, wide-eyed and naïve narrator because Deacon Blue was to headline the event on Glasgow Green.  Because the event was free and this was perhaps my only chance to see the band in their (adopted) home city, I made the trek up to Glasgow from where I was studying in Leeds.

I’d long had an affinity with Scotland and Glasgow, but for the life of me I can’t explain why.  Deacon Blue had clearly had an influence, their debut album Raintown being metaphorically soaked in the city, but I also have pre-teen memories of wanting to be Scottish (I think Kenny Dalglish was a big influence).  By 1990, I’d never been to Glasgow (save for one or two brief changes of train on the way to Edinburgh) and I’ve only been back once since, and then only for an afternoon.  June 3, 1990 merely served to fan the flames of my romantic and slightly absurd Glaswegian notions.

I travelled to Glasgow alone that day.  I got off the train at Queen Street station and walked the length of the platform before stepping out into George Square.  It was midday and already crowded with people; music poured from a stage in the middle of the square; the high, historic buildings around the square gave off a grand, civic swell.  It was intoxicating; the city buzzed as it rocked.

My desire was to get to Glasgow Green early, ensuring a good spot for the evening concert at which Deacon Blue would play.  I almost immediately headed towards the Clyde and along the river to the site.  En route I passed another stage and paused to watch Eddi Reader do her thing, but as time was of the essence, I soon moved on to the Green.  I got there early enough to be one of a handful of people waiting for the barriers to be dropped. When they were, I ran with all my might towards the stage, my feet pounding the hard, hot ground; I almost tumbled halfway across as my excitement and anticipation outpaced the muscles in my legs.  When I got there, right at the front, I realised I had three hours until the concert started and probably nine until it concluded – my first concern was going to the toilet.  I now wondered if the muscles in my bladder could fair better than those in my thighs.

The gig itself was awesome.  It was a broad showcase of contemporary Scottish music – The Silencers, Hue and Cry, Wet Wet Wet, Big Country and, of course, Deacon Blue.  The crowd was estimated at 250,000; it was all shown on Channel 4.  I was right at the front, desperate for the loo.  Scottish media still – occasionally and wistfully – reminisce about that day; the day Glasgow united despite the political context, the mistrust of the Government, the decline of manufacture, the loss of jobs, the Poll Tax, the Tories.  A celebration, marinated in Tennents.

Of course, the day wasn’t ‘free’.  The walk back to Queen Street station was late.  I lost a library book.  I missed the last train home and, in the morning, they forced me to buy a new train ticket because I lost my train ticket too.

In the morning.  In the morning.  I spent an unplanned night in Glasgow.  I didn’t move from the steps of Queen Street station once I got there.  The shutters were down and there was no way onto the platform.  The steps were the only place to stay; to wait, until the trains started again.  I didn’t sleep.  I watched George Square through the night, and the people coming and going from the hotel entrance that shared those steps.  I never once felt afraid, or cold, or vulnerable and despite being alone, I never felt that either.  It was Glasgow, and it was drunk on pride.

My knowledge of Glasgow is weaned from the varying emotions and experiences of Ricky Ross and his expression of those things as though he’s a Scottish Bruce Springsteen – earnest, angry, tender, gritty, optimistic and heart-breaking.  Perhaps that is the city, too.  Those steps I spent the night on are roughly where the bin lorry hit the hotel in George Square this week.  Whilst based on one night in 1990, I know those steps, that hotel, that view, and I know something of the spirit of Glasgow people.  Coming at Christmas, the loss of six people is particularly hard.  My thoughts are with the people of the city and those who are missing someone this Christmas.

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Goodwill to all neighbours…

What a marvellous blog. That’s just how it felt. Even I felt a little Christmassy. Humbug.

Subversive Suburbanite

20141208-210931-76171113.jpg Tarmac nativity

Last Sunday we had what has become an annual event on our street – a spot of carol singing followed by more than a spot of mulled wine. (Okay, I made 12 litres. Oops.)

A neighbour suggested it three years ago. I was enchanted by the idea of what she called ‘bellowing in the street’, and realised that I have only once seen a group of carol singers out on the streets in the local suburbia (and that was up in the next postcode where they are all quite posh white and English). Three years later, I can’t seem to stop organising it.

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Bar of chocolate for a pound, sir?

We have a cute little high street where we live. I’ve eaten in a great Turkish restaurant out there this evening, with the kids, and it was throbbing with people.  We have Starbucks where the staff are friendly and it’s huge and cosy at the same time.  The pleasantness in there almost compensates for their limited contribution to the nation’s infrastructure.  We have a traditional hardware shop, a couple of small supermarkets, couple of pubs, an office suppliers, an independent card shop, a shoe shop and a sizable second hand bookshop and loads of other things that add up to a street where most of your every day needs are catered for.

We also have a tiny little WHSmith.  It’s just a bit bigger than a cupboard, and stocks a few books, a few papers, a few magazines and a selection of rulers.  It’s quite handy when an independent store doesn’t quite nail your stationery / news / emergency present needs.  It’s also been a little WHSmith oasis, because in most other WHSmith’s they seek to grind down the shopping experience by herding you to self-service machines, asking if you want a bar of chocolate for a pound, giving you endless vouchers for crap food or ocado shopping, churning our endless paper with £5 off printer cartridges (every time…really?) and refusing to give you a receipt for purchases coming under £5.

But now WHSMith’s mindless corporate policy making behemoth has rolled into even cupboard sized branches.  So, on Saturday, when purchasing an emergency present and birthday card, I came across a sign on the cash desk counter; please use the self-service machine.  I approached the desk, where two staff were standing doing fiddle-dee-dee and asked whether I had to use the machine.  ‘Yes’, they replied.  ‘It’s company policy,’ they said.  ‘Do grab your vouchers’, they continued, cheerlessly.  I commented that I hated using self service machines where they were completely unnecessary (like in branches the size of a backyard pond, where there are two staff, no queues and no-one buys anything more than a pack of envelopes and a paper).  ‘The company doesn’t listen to us’, one of the two employees muttered, by way of apology.  I suspect they won’t listen to me either.

One of the staff came round to the machine on the pretence of helping me.  She scanned all of my items, took my card and placed it in the machine and got my receipt for me.  That was EXACTLY WHAT SHE’D DONE IF SHE’D BEEN ON THE TILL.

I’ve loathed WHSmith’s descent into dumbed down shopping for a very long time.  Cash desks increasingly forlorn in branches; counters piled high with discounted chocolate; irrelevant vouchers and bits of paper thrust into your hand on leaving to dictate where else / when you shop and distressingly few staff within the stores themselves to actually help you find things and aid your experience.

Now their hideous policies are infiltrating my high street, I think I’ll go somewhere else.

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IKEA: A new benchmark in customer service

I had a lovely day planned with the family today.  Indeed, we had a lovely day planned yesterday too.  But it’s all been sabotaged by IKEA.  We’re in the middle of a big internal build at home at the moment (week 12 of about 15) and the point has arrived where the kitchen needs to be ordered.  We’ve settled on an IKEA kitchen and have already endured two, two hour meetings preceded by long waits in the store because they’re overloaded with appointments (you have to wander round the store for a couple of hours waiting for your appointment).

Saturday saw us have another long appointment (preceded by a 90 minute wait) that finally saw us order and part with the cash (ouch).  IKEA deliver the next day, although the last time we’d threatened ordering, it would have been the day after tomorrow, so we were hoping for some negotiation They weren’t having that – it would be delivered the next day; today, Sunday.

We were given a 10-4 delivery window, but no finer detail within that.  We were due in west London for 1230, so we’d hoped for an early delivery.  When this didn’t materialise, my wife took the kids over and I stayed in for the delivery.  By 1530 I was convinced it wasn’t going to come.  I’d tried to ring IKEA once to check out where it might be, but had given up because of the ’30 minute waiting time’.  By 1530 though I persevered despite the ’60 minute waiting time’.  After 34 minutes, I got an answer – the delivery was on its way and would be here soon.  We’d had now gone past the original delivery window and were into no-man’s land.  I had also checked out the website.  I could send an email for help (which I did – they’ll respond to me within 5 days!) or I could ring the store (which was the same number as the general number and so, I suspect, not ringing the store at all).

The delivery arrived just after 1800, a full two hours beyond a six hour delivery window.  I’d been waiting a eight hours.  My wife was on her way back from the day out.  When I heard the doorbell ring, IKEA, it seemed, had decided to give three young lads a van to drive around in on the basis that they might pass by one of the houses on a list now and again.  They clearly been told not to apologise or show any concern for failing to hit a delivery target.  They were more concerned with where to park than bringing the stuff in, and didn’t put any of it where it needed to go (I accept it was in a vague vicinity, which might be their instruction).  There was no chance to look through to see if they’d delivered the right stuff and they left me unable to close the front door despite the rain outside.  All for £29.  Thanks IKEA!  Bargain!

I’ve had a grotty weekend.  The day out with the kids  has gone.  I’ve had to lug 123 individual boxes around the house having waited eight hours for a delivery that should have arrived at least two hours sooner.  I have spent more time than I care to think about in IKEA, and now they have my x-thousand quid they seem not to care a jot about the rest of my project and the safe arrival of my furniture.

Dear Richard.  Thanks you for being a valued IKEA customer.  Would you recommend us to a friend.  No, IKEA, f*ck off.

 

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Things that cause cancer

It’s been one of those weeks where my Facebook news feed has been full of scare stories about stuff and cancer.  Sadly, very little is helpful or comforting, and most of it is telling me I’m going to die of it because of my pathetic Western life.  I find the irony of being told that wi-fi causes cancer via the beauty of the internet quite galling.

Having spent eight years watch a fit, lively, intelligent, non-smoking, vegetarian white women under 40 succumb to a brain tumour I get a bit cheesed off with being told what specific things to avoid in order to prevent me from getting cancer as well.  Me, I just want to make the most I can of life in the fragile, limited time we have and worry about death when it comes knocking (whilst trying to keep a sensible handle on my exercise, balanced diet and alcohol intake).

So, purely in the pursuit of a good laugh, I’ve managed to find a list of things that the Daily Mail has linked to cancer or the causes of cancer.  If this isn’t enough to make you think that a lot of what you read is fear-mongering bullshit, I don’t know what is.

AGE [www.facebook.com]
AIR POLLUTION [www.dailymail.co.uk]
AIR TRAVEL [www.dailymail.co.uk] and [www.dailymail.co.uk]
ALCOHOL [www.dailymail.co.uk] and [www.dailymail.co.uk]
ALLERGIES [www.dailymail.co.uk]
ARTIFICIAL FLAVOURS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
ARTIFICIAL LIGHT [www.dailymail.co.uk]
ASBESTOS (as if it wasn’t bad enough already) [www.dailymail.co.uk]
ASPIRIN [www.dailymail.co.uk]
BABIES [www.dailymail.co.uk]
BABY BOTTLES [www.dailymail.co.uk]
BABY FOOD [www.dailymail.co.uk]
BACON [www.dailymail.co.uk]
BARBEQUES [www.dailymail.co.uk]
BEEF [www.dailymail.co.uk]
BEER [www.dailymail.co.uk]
BEING A BLACK PERSON [www.dailymail.co.uk] and [www.dailymail.co.uk]
BEING A WOMAN [www.dailymail.co.uk]
BEING A MAN [www.dailymail.co.uk]
BEING SOUTHERN [www.dailymail.co.uk]
BISCUITS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
BLOWJOBS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
BRAS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
BREAD [www.dailymail.co.uk]
BREAST FEEDING [www.dailymail.co.uk]
BREAST IMPLANTS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
BROKEN HEARTS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
BUBBLE BATH [www.dailymail.co.uk]
BURGERS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CAFFEINE [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CALCIUM [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CANDLE-LIT DINNERS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CANNED FOOD [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CARBOHYDRATES [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CARS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CEREAL [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CHEESE [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CHICKEN [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CHILDLESSNESS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CHILDREN [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CHILDREN’S FOOD[www.dailymail.co.uk]
CHILLIS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CHINESE MEDICINE [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CHIPS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CHLORINE [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CHOCOLATE [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CITY LIVING [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CLIMATE CHANGE [www.dailymail.co.uk]
COCA COLA [www.dailymail.co.uk]
COD LIVER OIL [www.dailymail.co.uk]
COFFEE [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CONSTAPATION [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CONTRACEPTIVE PILLS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
COOKING [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CORDLESS PHONES [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CRAYONS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
CURRY [www.dailymail.co.uk]
DEODRANT [www.dailymail.co.uk]
DIETING [www.dailymail.co.uk]
DOGS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
EGGS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
ELECTRICITY [www.dailymail.co.uk]
ENGLISH BREAKFAST [www.dailymail.co.uk]
FACEBOOK [www.dailymail.co.uk]
FALSE NAILS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
FATHERHOOD [www.dailymail.co.uk]
FIBRE [www.dailymail.co.uk]
FISH [www.dailymail.co.uk]
FIZZY DRINKS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
FLIP FLOPS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
FLY SPRAY [www.dailymail.co.uk]
FRUIT [www.dailymail.co.uk]
GARDENS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
GRAPEFRUIT [www.dailymail.co.uk]
HAIR DYE [www.dailymail.co.uk]
HAM [www.dailymail.co.uk]
HEIGHT [www.dailymail.co.uk]
HONEY [www.dailymail.co.uk]
HOT DRINKS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
HRT [www.dailymail.co.uk]
INTERNET [www.dailymail.co.uk]
IVF [www.dailymail.co.uk]
KIDNEY TRANSPLATS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
LAMB [www.dailymail.co.uk]
LARGE HEADS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
LEFT-HANDEDNESS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
LIPSTICK [www.dailymail.co.uk]
LIVER TRANSPLANTS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
MENOPAUSE [www.dailymail.co.uk]
MENSTRUATION [www.dailymail.co.uk]
METAL [www.dailymail.co.uk]
MILK [www.dailymail.co.uk]
MOBILE PHONES [www.dailymail.co.uk]
MODERN LIVING [www.dailymail.co.uk]
MONEY [www.dailymail.co.uk]
MORPHINE [www.dailymail.co.uk]
MOUTHWASH [www.dailymail.co.uk]
NUCLEAR POWER (there is no hint of irony in this article) [www.dailymail.co.uk]
OBESITY [www.dailymail.co.uk]
OESTROGEN [www.dailymail.co.uk]
OLDER FATHERS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
PASTRY [www.dailymail.co.uk]
PEANUT BUTTER [www.dailymail.co.uk]
PERFUME [www.dailymail.co.uk]
PICKLES [www.dailymail.co.uk]
PIZZA [www.dailymail.co.uk]
PLASTIC BAGS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
PORK [www.dailymail.co.uk]
POTATOES [www.dailymail.co.uk]
POVERTY [www.dailymail.co.uk]
PREGNANCY [www.dailymail.co.uk]
RADIOACTIVITY (again, just no irony whatsoever) [www.dailymail.co.uk]
RICE [www.dailymail.co.uk]
SAUSAGES [www.dailymail.co.uk]
RETIREMENT [www.dailymail.co.uk]
SEX [www.dailymail.co.uk]
SHAVING [www.dailymail.co.uk]
SKIING [www.dailymail.co.uk]
SOUP [www.dailymail.co.uk]
SPACE TRAVEL [www.dailymail.co.uk]
SUN CREAM [www.dailymail.co.uk]
TALCUM POWDER [www.dailymail.co.uk]
TEA [www.dailymail.co.uk]
TEEN SEX [www.dailymail.co.uk]
THIRD HAND SMOKE (read article and you’ll understand) [www.dailymail.co.uk]
VITAMINS [www.dailymail.co.uk]
WATER [www.dailymail.co.uk]
WI-FI [www.dailymail.co.uk]
WORCESTERSHIRE SAUCE [www.dailymail.co.uk]
WORKING [www.dailymail.co.uk]
X-RAYS [www.dailymail.co.uk]

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I’ve just noticed a clock…

IMG_1061[1]

Can you see the clock?

I’ve been pretty indifferent about the new clock in the middle of Palmers Green high street.  I first got wind of the news that such a project was happening in 2013.  The idea was to liven up the tatty little traffic island in a wider space known locally as ‘The Triangle’ at the main junction in Palmers Green.  There used to be a tree on it, but it had to be removed when it became diseased.  The absence of a feature there has troubled the local influentials ever since.  The clock idea filled me with utter dread; it’s hardly the most original idea and there are many truly great clock towers in other parts of the country that set a high bar for such a focal point – you only have to go down the road to Crouch End to see the iconic impact of a good clock tower.  Also knowing the of the promoters of the idea – the Green Lane Business Association, aggressive objectors to the mini-Holland idea project and on the basis of that meeting lacking any ability to respond to different perspectives – I gave the project a wide berth.

Said clock has now been in place for about a month, and to be honest, it’s barely noticeable, so it hadn’t troubled my sensibilities.  And given it’s so insignificant, I shouldn’t really comment, but the missed opportunity just makes me angry at the waste of public money (some of the funding came from the Residents Priority Fund).

The Triangle – the wider space – in Palmers Green is a reasonable piece of urban design.  Far more than a tatty traffic island, it’s an early 20th century focal point of a compact suburban town centre.  It is framed by well scaled buildings – many of them ornate and historic, rich in colour and detail – and offers interesting views to it on the approach roads.  It’s a busy hive of activity with shops, services and food and drink available on its three sides.  There’s movement across the roads, between the station and the high street, in and out of the shops.  People can sit outside and watch other people.  It is a place with much potential from a sympathetic and effective strategic design approach.  The tree must have once really made it special.

Coming through the space this evening, I looked at the clock.  Notwithstanding the effort put it by local traders and craftsmen in bringing it together, and the supposed influences cited from the surroundings, the clock lacks any command or status within the street scene.  It’s small and slender frame is lost; the clock face is often blocked by various paraphernalia surrounding it – traffic lights, street lights, a way finding sign, utility boxes, cctv stands….  It’s been hurriedly plonked in a random part of the island with no thought to the floorscape or the context.  The heritage / Victoriana approach is lazy, tired, undemanding and unoriginal, the lowest common denominator of civic intervention in the public realm and hardly offering the past any respect or the future anything to remember us by.  And do we really need a clock?

A little digging reveals that the designer came to the project late, with no previous experience of built structures and the ideas for the clock imposed upon her.  Consultation on the Palmers Green Community website shows half of those responding disliking the design.

Indifference remains the word.  It’s a missed opportunity in its own right; it’s premature in light of the promised interventions in the wider public realm in the medium term and it’s a bad idea poorly executed with a sloppy design.  Given that it’s lost in a sea of poles on an isolated traffic island, it’s probably just as well no-one will notice it.

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